Monday, January 11, 2010

To reveal or not to reveal (Books - Authenticity by Deirdre Madden)

Upon finishing Authenticity, Deirdre Madden's novel built around two visual artists and their encounter with an attorney in the midst of a mid-life panic who turns to painting, I stand with my mid-point analysis - it is a book about the consequences of imagining. As I have mentioned in other posts about Madden's work, her characters frequently cast their minds out upon the currents and try to place themselves inside the experience of others. This is certainly many artists' stock-in-trade, but people of all kinds imagine the lives of others. Those who do not have much knowledge of or use for the arts consider such activity the stuff of children or mere frivolity but it can have many uses. This imagining can be a pleasurable escape, an exercise in empathy, or it can be a provocation of the most unsettling sort. As the painter, Roderick, observes of the attorney, William:
"If painting had been only a pipe dream, then there'd be no problem. It would be enough for him to have it as a hobby. Unfortunately William really has made a huge mistake. He's done the wrong thing. It isn't just that he thinks he's wasted his life, he knows he's wasted his life. But what can he do? His situation is all but set in stone. He needs to keep his family - and himself, mark, and himself - in the style to which they're accustomed. Nor am I saying for a moment," he added quickly," that I think he ought to walk out on his family. I don't consider that kind of behaviour a prerequisite for being an artist."
Funny this coming from Roderick, who did walk out on his family while in an alcohol sodden crisis of his own several years prior, and exacted many emotional costs of his wife and daughters as well as paying all sorts of costs himself. Imagining alternatives can be an expensive activity, and one whose price not every person can afford. One point Authenticity seems to make is that, artistry may extend to many an allure of either heady nobility or fame and grandeur, but the actuality of the artistic life is not for sissies. It is not an easy way to live despite the fact that many people outside the artistic professions associate the daily activities of the artist with play.

Another exploration in Authenticity is the nature of that art. Madden makes that conversation tangible through the contrasting work of Roderick, a middle-aged, "mid-career" painter whose process emphasizes how he sees objects and rendering what he sees with both freeness and precision resulting finally in what most art critics would call abstract painting. A certain kind of painting has become an end in itself for Roderick. His encounter is with paint and canvas, with painting itself, and though he may be expressed through the work because it is his vision that is rendered on the canvas and because his technique and his freedom allow something unique to himself to be deposited there, his painting is not intentionally autobiographic or self-revelatory. Whereas Julia is younger and at the start of her work's trajectory. Her art is not only more wide-ranging in media - using three-dimensional objects, collecting stories and impressions from people, building fabric constructions people slide through - it is also explicit in its mission to reveal the what is most private and personal. To some degree, these different philosophies of art are expressive of the different people who make them and the process of art making really contains all those ingredients to a greater or lesser degree. This dichotomy is set-off by the work of William who, if not painting for his livelyhood is painting for his very life.

As Madden observes the interaction betwenn art and artist, she also explores the experiences of their loved ones - the pleasures for some of sharing the passion for art and ideas, the incomprehension of others about why they work so hard if the costs are so high and the apparent rewards so small, and the costs exacted of still others who suffer along with their husband, parent, lover, or as is the case in Authenticity, brother. Madden writes a most sympathetic character in Roderick's older brother Dennis, although I find her usually fine eye for believable character clouded here by sentimentality. There is a certain generality to lone and long-suffering Dennis that smells of Hollywood neatness, particularly in his early childhood promise to "look after him always." I also found a self-helpy quality to some of the writing around Roderick's divorce and alcoholism that may be hard to avoid these days but was surprisingly cliched coming from Madden's relentlessly original pen. Ultimately I found the five shorter novels I read of Madden's more clear-eyed, more idiosyncratic, finer works of art than Authenticity. I feel Madden got a little literal here, explaining the ideas she wanted this novel to express rather than writing from them and letting them be expressed. Oddly, in a book about the very idea of the struggle to live unconventionally, Madden has written her most conventional novel. Still, this is a compelling story about making art, highly recognizable to me from a life lived among artists. Madden has rendered this world with complexity, verisimilitude, and great intelligence and while I admire her other books more, I am happy to have spent time in the company of more of her characters.

My earlier thoughts about this book can be found here.

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